From: The Israel Project
Ships from several countries, including Iran and Lebanon, have left or are planning to leave for Hamas-controlled Gaza in defiance of an Israeli maritime blockade on that territory.
Israel considers Gaza-bound convoys a security risk because of Hamas’ ongoing efforts to smuggle Iranian rockets and other weaponry into Gaza since the Iran-backed group overthrew the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in a bloody coup there in 2007. Israel Security Agency Director Yuval Diskin has said that a port in Gaza would “pose a huge security threat to Israel.”
Iran arms, funds and trains Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the European Union, the United States, Israel, Canada and Australia. Since Israel voluntarily withdrew from all of Gaza in August 2005 in hopes of paving the way for a peaceful, independent Palestinian state, Hamas has fired more than 6,500 rockets and mortars into Israel.
Reports about the new flotillas come in the aftermath of a May 31 Israeli campaign to prevent an illegal flotilla from reaching Gaza, in which nine activists – all Turks or of Turkish descent – were killed after passengers on board the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship in the convoy, attacked Israeli military personnel. Israel had ordered the vessels to dock in the southern Israeli port of Ashdod to unload the cargo for security inspections and subsequent delivery to Gaza. Despite the refusal of all six ships to detour to Ashdod, the Mavi Marmara was the only vessel where a violent confrontation took place.
Although two individuals coordinating the Lebanese convoy have denied they are receiving support from Hezbollah, another proxy of Iran, one of them has written in praise of the terrorist group’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, and the other has met and thanked Nasrallah publicly. Nasrallah called for more ships to Gaza at a June 4 rally, stating that “only diplomacy which is built on strength and arms is effective.” Since the end of Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah, the terrorist group has rearmed far beyond its pre-2006 capacity.
Following are details about new ships heading for Gaza, collected from published reports as of June 16, 2010.
- One Iranian ship left for Gaza June 12 from the Iranian port of Khorramshahr and plans to sail through Omani, Yemeni and Egyptian territorial waters before it tries to reach Gaza.
- Two Iranian ships organized by Iran’s Society for the Defense of Palestine are scheduled to depart shortly: one ship is named Toward Gaza and will set sail from the southern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, while the other ship will leave from northern Iran and stop in Turkey before making its way to Gaza.
- Despite a previous statement by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) that it was willing to provide a naval escort to any additional aid ships wishing to reach Gaza, an IRGC commander and an official in charge of the ships both said June 14 that IRGC forces would not accompany the ships.
- An Iranian official in charge of the convoy said those aboard the ships “are willing to become martyred in this way.”
- Three members of the Majlis (Iran’s parliament) also intend to travel to Gaza by way of Egypt later this week.
- An Iranian ambassador recently threatened that “if the (Zionist) entity dares to direct any aggressive attack (against the ship) then it is certain [Israel] will be met by a much stronger and firm blow.”
- Two Lebanese organizations – Journalists without Borders and Free Palestine – are sponsoring the Naji Al Ali, with at least 50 journalists and 25 European volunteers on board, including European parliament members.
- Palestinian businessman and Free Palestine chairman Yasser Kashlak is funding the Naj Al Ali vessel, as well as an all-women’s ship, the Mariam. Kashlak has insisted he has no connection with Hezbollah, Hamas or Iran, but in 2009 Kashlak sent a letter to Nasrallah in which he wrote, “We ask Allah to extend your life and the lives of all who support Palestine and the noble resistance.” Additionally, in a blog post, Kashlak criticized Arab governments and media for failing to embrace Nasrallah’s self-proclaimed victory in Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel.
- Samar Hajj, who is organizing the Mariam, said the ship “has nothing to do with Hezbollah even though it is an honor for us to be supporters of the resistance.” She is the wife of Ali Hajj, a former Lebanese general imprisoned until recently for his suspected involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The couple met with Nasrallah three weeks ago to thank him for his support.
- A U.S.-based group, the Council for the National Interest Foundation, has asked its supporters to volunteer to join the Lebanese convoy.
- The Insani Yardim Vakfi, or “humanitarian relief fund” (IHH), the hardcore Turkish Islamist group that partly organized and funded the previous flotilla that included the Mavi Marmara, said it will send six more ships to Gaza in July. A 2006 study conducted by the Danish Institute for International Studies showed that the IHH was involved in planning an al-Qaeda attack against Los Angeles International Airport in 1999. The IHH reportedly acquired forged documents, enlisted operatives and delivered weapons to al-Qaeda in preparation for the attack, which was ultimately foiled.
- A German organization called Jewish Voices for a Just Peace is sponsoring a ship with 14 activists aboard, scheduled for departure in mid-July. According to the group’s spokeswoman, that vessel may be delayed because 40 additional German-Jewish activists wish to participate, requiring them to charter another ship. The port from which the ships plan to depart has not been announced.
- European leaders have reportedly reacted positively to Israel’s request that they take action to prevent Gaza-bound vessels from leaving European ports and forbid their citizens from participating.
“Freedom Fleet II”
- Free Gaza – the group that sponsored the flotilla intercepted by Israel May 31 – and Viva Palestina, a UK-based group, are planning another convoy of 10 – 15 ships, slated to leave for Gaza by October. One of the main organizers is Iyad el-Sarj, based in Norway.
Historically, ships bound for Gaza have carried tons of weapons among their cargo.
Examples of previous Gaza-bound ships carrying weapons:
- “Francop” (2009)
In November 2009 the Israeli Navy intercepted the “Francop,” a ship containing 320 tons of arms sent from Iran and destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Weaponry and ammunition were disguised as civilian cargo in the hundreds of containers the ship was transporting.
- “Abu Hasan” (2003)
On May 21, 2003 Israeli naval commandos intercepted a fishing boat, the Abu Hasan, sailing from Lebanon to Egypt carrying a Hezbollah explosives expert bound for Gaza. Also seized were CD discs with instructions on how to assemble bomb belts for suicide bombers, a radio-activation system for remote-control bombs and 25 detonators for Kassam rockets.
- “Karin A” (2002)
In January 2002 a ship carrying weapons intended for the Palestinian Authority was captured in the Red Sea by Israel’s Navy and Air Force. The boat’s cargo included 50 tons of advanced weaponry including Katyusha rockets, rifles, mortar shells, mines and a variety of anti-tank missiles. Senior figures in the Palestinian Authority were involved in the smuggling.
Ashkelon and other coastal cities would have been threatened by these Katyusha rockets if they reached Gaza.
- “Santorini” (2001)
On May 7, 2001 Israeli naval forces intercepted a Lebanese ship destined for Gaza, which contained anti-aircraft missiles, anti-tank missile-launchers, RPG rockets, mortar shells, mines, rifles and guns. The shipment, some of which originated in Iran, had been loaded in Lebanon by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The Santorini and another boat, the Calypso-2, made three successful smuggling operations of which the first was in November 2000.